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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 in C Op.15 (1795) [33:21]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.2 in B flat Op.19 (1793-5) [29:18]
CD 2

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.3 in c minor Op.37 (1797-1803) [37:33]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.4 in G Op.58 (1806-8) [36:41]
CD 3
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.5 in E flat Op.73 ‘Emperor’ (1809) [41:48]

Evgeny Kissin (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. 4, 5, 26 August, 9-10 October 2007, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 2063112 [3 CDs: 62:44 + 74:20 + 41:48]

 

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As is clear from even a brief perusal of the current catalogues, competition is truly fierce in this repertoire – lion fierce, roar. I don’t have the feeling that EMI is particularly scared however. Teaming Evgeny Kissin with Sir Colin Davis and using the fine support of the London Symphony Orchestra, placing the whole melting pot in the respected acoustic of Studio I at Abbey Road, this new set of the complete Beethoven piano concertos has all the ingredients to be a classic benchmark. 

We’re not short of benchmark recordings of the Beethoven Concertos. There is the Brendel/Rattle combination on Philips, renowned for its refinement and dark, subliminal Viennese power. Then there is Pollini/Abbado’s Berlin set, which can be wayward in its ‘characterful’ live setting, but at its best has moments of real genius. Melvyn Tan’s is another good set, but you can’t put a fortepiano and historic performance against these modern examples. More of an also-ran, but a set which I’ve had knocking around for ages, is that with Gerhard Oppitz and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. I have to admit the only reason for hanging on to this is the bonus piano arrangement version of the Concerto for Violin, which has to be dubious enough: almost as tedious as the novelty of having recordings encoded in Dolby Surround. My real favourite of long standing has been that with Perahia/Haitink, and while I recognise that my familiarity with the Concertgebouw has made it as appealing to me as an old and comfortable hat, the sheer all-round excellence of this set still has lasting value on any terms – subjective or objective. 

The first reference which I plucked from the shelves was not a complete set however. Fans of Kissin will know of and no doubt already own the 1997 Sony disc of his Beethoven concertos Nos. 2 and 5, with the Philharmonia conducted by James Levine. This was also made at Abbey Road, and so the comparisons are immediate and some of the differences fascinatingly subtle. For the most part, the later recordings are more on the broad side, with a minute added to the first movements of both concertos, and only the adagio of the Concerto No.2 coming in a little shorter in the new recording. No big surprises here – less youthful ebullience or impetuousness in the faster movements, a shade less indulgence in the slow – the wisdom of ten years added experience would make this the predictable pattern. The story is not quite this simple however. It may be partly due to the recording, but I also have the impression that Kissin’s touch has changed a little over the years. Compared with the older recording there are some moments where he appears to be playing more through the keys; adding weight and impact, sometimes seeming to prefer to have the strings jumping around on top of the lid of the piano rather than safely embedded in the frame. After the initial impressions of the ‘lion of the keyboard’ having taken up extra power training and demolition exercises, one begins to realise that there are plenty of other moments where grace, lightness and wit are strongly evident, so in this context perseverance pays dividends. 

Russian-ness in pianism is something to which I have become sensitised by consorting with my mate Johan the piano, and in order to compare like with like I have also referred to the rather marvellous set with Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra on DG. Pletnev is as fearless as Kissin, but plays around with the spaces built in to Beethoven’s work, introducing personal inflections both little and large while somehow preserving and inhabiting the character of the music like few others I have heard. Pletnev rides the orchestra like an expert horseman, moulding his sound to become part of the whole where Kissin sparkles on top of the orchestral textures in the less soloistic passages. What both of these great pianists share is a refusal to be beige at any time: no section is seen as transitional, no moment which doesn’t have its rightful intensity and expressive value. 

I’ve dotted around with a mixture of comparisons, but the most important thing is to ask how these recordings stand on their own terms. One feature which stands out immediately is the transparent openness of the recordings. Wide, spacious stereo and superb balance between orchestra and demonstration piano sound all make for a big percentage of the asking price of such a new set, and this cycle has these qualities in abundance. The LSO sound has plenty of sensitivity, but is also a big-boned animal where the full force of the orchestra is demanded. ‘Big bones don’t wobble’ says one of my constantly dieting friends, but Sir Colin holds the throttle firmly down when it comes to vibrato in the strings. This creates the desired warmth in the sound, and only very occasionally leaves some wavy traces where one desk or other is exposed in a quiet passage. Sir Colin is also caught out having a little moan to himself as well, which can be a little off-putting in the slow movements, as well as plenty of sotto voce vocalisations elsewhere. You can tune into these right at the start of the first separated notes of the Piano Concerto No.1. There is also a couple of clicks, one just a few seconds into the second movement of this concerto which I’m surprised were left, but in general the production values are, as I say, of the highest order.

The Piano Concerto No.1 opens with a genuinely noble sense of grandeur, but with a measured pace the contrast between this and the lyrical second section has been greater. Sir Colin doesn’t really soften the boundaries between Beethoven’s extremes of mood, but neither does he go in for massive excess in their treatment. I have lived with this set for a few days now, and while I know such things grow and change on one, I found myself impressed by the musicianship in the first two concertos. If there is a discrepancy, it is Kissin’s ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ as opposed to Sir Colin’s ‘iron fist in an oven glove’ – Kissin’s penetrating sound darts through the beautifully rounded orchestral textures with concert-hall projection, and while there are many moments of gentle intimacy I rarely had the sense of chamber-music making I feel with Pletnev. That said, the descending scales and other passages in the soft centre to the opening Allegro con brio are quite magical, as is the lyrical charm of the second Largo movement. Perhaps it is the more brittle, showier treble in what I strongly suspect must be a Steinway piano which makes some of the difference in perception between Kissin’s colours and Pletnev’s. The Steinway trades brilliant brightness of sound against the more sustain-orientated Blüthner, so that while Kissin’s legato is of course a wonderful set of lines, the piano remains a lid on top of the biscuit tin of the orchestra, rather than a more fluid set of sugary nuggets which can move among all those different textures and tasty flavours. Returning to the Piano Concerto No.2, and there are some differences of emphasis between Kissin’s 1997 and 2007 performances, but in general the broader sweep of the first and last movements create a more rock-like foundation than the more flighty earlier recording, allowing Kissin to expand more subtle ideas. The first movement is full of lovely subtleties both from the orchestra and the soloist, and one has the feeling of some genuine wit coming through, even some Beethovenian self-parody as the scales go up and down like marbles on a child’s toy. The flautist gets a nasty kick at 34 seconds into the Adagio, but such minor blemishes don’t take anything away from a performance which will live on in your inner ear for a long time afterwards – at least, it does in mine. 

Moving on to disc two, and the mysterious, dark opening to the Piano Concerto No.3 is nicely presented, with every ounce of inner movement balanced and shaped for strength of soul and direction of purpose. Kissin matches the orchestra for power in his entry, and the rippling nature of some of the piano’s subsequent passagework suits Kissin’s evenness of touch to the ground. The Largo is full of rich funereal atmosphere from the start, weighty in the low frequencies, hazily transcendent in the upper registers of the orchestra. The inner section is hugely sustained, and the slow-wobbly vibrato of the first flute solo is the only negative aspect. Slow vibrato in slow music does not for beautiful expressiveness make – yuk! The tempo of the Rondo is less headlong than in several recordings I’ve heard, and again as a result, there is room for some expansion of orchestral sonority and wonderful touches from the soloist. The sheer power of Beethoven’s musical arguments take on their own momentum in what turn out to be a truly great performance. 

The opening of the Piano Concerto No.4 does initially seem to be a little lacking in character. Kissin and Davis are however saving themselves, showing a little sketch from Beethoven’s pocket book, before the development and return of the main theme are given their true status. This is another cracking performance, with the symphonic scale of the first movement paced to perfection and packed with subtly delivered contrast and event. Sir Colin relishes the recitative character of the Andante con moto’s opening, as does Kissin, receding between the unison columns of the string’s interjections as if meditating on the nature of Xanadu’s ‘caverns, measureless to man.’ This movement of course serves as an introduction to Beethoven’s stock in trade, the Rondo finale, this time marked Vivace, which is taken as truly ‘lively’ in character: highly animated as well as being excitingly and dramatically paced, the virtuosity of the music’s creation and its performance going hand in hand to create a sense of maximum freshness. 

Evgeny Kissin performed these concertos at the Barbican last year, and the synergy and feeling of a ‘live’ character to the playing comes through in these later concertos. The opening of the Piano Concerto No.5 is cataclysmic, the waves of both orchestral sound and bending piano strings demanding you put down your tea and pay attention. At nearly 22 minutes, this is the longest of the piano concerto movements, and the remarkable edifice which it constructs remains entirely engrossing. The clarity in the recording is of benefit here, as every inflection counts, both the devil and the heavens being in the detail. Indeed, there are one or two moments where I felt the intonation of the winds might have been a little more accurate – in the clarinets to point the finger, but this is another one of those minor points I wouldn’t want to stretch too far. With just a brief note on cadenzas, one needs to mention that Kissin uses all of Beethoven’s own, and is of course brilliantly magnificent in all of them: expressing pianistic virtuosity without losing integration into the rest of the movement in question. The Adagio un poco mosso of this 5th concerto is really gorgeous: only some rather sharply prodded high notes in the piano breaking the sustained spell of innocence, love and simplicity. The Allegro ma non troppo finale has magnificent stature, orchestra and soloist responding to each other and sparring in animated and amicable rivalry for sheer Beethovenian heroism, power and impact. 

These recordings are accompanied by useful booklet notes by Richard Osborne, and my only comment on the presentation is the isolation of the pianist in the photos – as if the orchestra and conductor had abandoned the poor fellow in a rather grim and chilly warehouse. While these recordings are truly great, one thing I didn’t really feel I was getting was a sense of extreme renewal. If you already own one of the ‘great’ recordings then you would probably find a greater sense of some kind of ‘new’ Beethoven with Pletnev on DG, but then, you may also find that this ‘new’ Beethoven is not entirely to your taste. I still find Pletnev’s ‘adventures with’ approach to be entirely magnetic and fascinating, but have to admit to falling in love with these new EMI recordings. It didn’t happen all at once, and there are still some ‘toothpaste squeezed from the middle’ moments of minor irritation. These are picky little details which I know will still make my moustache twitch when I’m 64, but as performances and recordings of genuine stature I can confidently report that these will enter the catalogue as an entirely desirable object with which, once obtained, you will find yourself reluctant to part. 

Dominy Clements

 


 




 


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